Medical Neutrality War Violations: 5 Facts Nurses Need To Know
By Mariam Yazdi
For centuries, present-day Israel has been a land of great strife, a place violently debated at the expense of many humans lives, year after year. This turmoil between Palestinians and Israelites dates back to as early as the 1900s. Decades of a brutal power struggle has led to multiple redefining of borders and hundreds of deaths, making this holy land to so many faiths around the world, a tumultuous and troubled one.
Protests in Gaza
What began as a protest against Israeli occupation in March 2018 along the border of the Gaza Strip, became increasingly heated when the United States moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in mid-May. By June, the protest had yielded the highest death toll the area had seen in years. One demonstrator, who was walking about 100 meters from the border, was suddenly hit in the head by a tear gas container.
In stepped a fearless 21-year-old nurse, Razan Ashraff Al-Najjar. She had been providing medical assistance at these protests for months and was well known for her ambition, strength, and bravery. She was passionate about serving her country’s cause by providing healing hands in a place where there was so much hurt. She was passionate, caring, and some could even say, a feminist. The brave act of treating the wounded amongst the chaos at the border of Gaza Strip was a statement of rebellion: “In our society women are often judged,” she said in an interview with the New York Times before her death, [but if society doesn’t] want to accept us by choice, they will be forced to accept us because we have more strength than any man…being a medic is not only a job for a man. It’s for women, too.”
And tragically, as she approached the border to assist the wounded protester, she was shot through the chest by an Israeli sniper positioned on the other side of the border. Razan was wearing all white, the typical medic uniform. She had her hands up to signify that she was unarmed. She had already spent hours in the turmoil, dressing wounds, assisting injuries, and bringing healing to those around her.
The next day, her Palestinian community mourned her gravely. The lovely, brave nurse was killed while attempting to heal the wounds of others. On the day of her funeral, her mother exclaimed:
“This is my daughter’s weapon with which she was [fighting.]” The woman [held] up two unopened bandage rolls she had found in [her daughter’s] vest and said, “These were her ammunition."
Razan's death is not only tragic because she was young or even selfless, which by all accounts, she was. It is also a horrific violation of medical neutrality, an occurrence that has been steadily increasing in war-stricken countries.
- Medical neutrality is an international agreement that states medical personnel is to be treated as a neutral party during times of war. This means that medical camps, hospitals, and all medical personnel are considered "off limits" from attacks, raids, or ambushes. They are not to be targeted.
- Likewise, medical personnel is to provide unbiased, equal care to all victims in need of medical attention, regardless of race, gender, or political stance; even if the injured person is considered a member of the “other side.”
- The principle of medical neutrality originates from the Geneva Conventions, a set of international laws that delineates the rules of war. The Geneva Conventions consist of four treaties and three protocols, all of which are observed and agreed upon by almost 200 hundred countries. The Geneva Conventions were set up to protect and promote the wellbeing of non-fighters during times of conflict: this includes civilians (especially vulnerable populations) and healthcare workers. It also speaks of providing dignity to prisoners, allowing them to contact family and be treated humanely.
- Medical neutrality violations are considered war crimes, and include everything from direct attacks on healthcare professionals or volunteers, to destruction or blockage of medical supplies, to preventing access to medical care at any time. Breaches of medical neutrality hurt the healthcare team but also causes the civilian populations to be left without the care they so desperately need. Unfortunately, it is difficult to regulate and condemn groups and countries who breach this law, making patients and professionals vulnerable targets. Over the last few decades, there have been an increasing number of medical neutrality violations, causing a devastating decrease in medical availability to populations that are in dire need.
- Despite this poor accountability, there are a number of organizations, like Physicians for Human Rights, who work to decrease violations of medical neutrality by shedding light on incidences, bringing them into publicity, and using awareness to put pressure on organizations that can make a difference, like the United Nations Security Council.
A march of solidarity
When Razan was killed, it wasn’t just her community in Palestine who mourned. Protesters on the Stateside in Philadelphia marched in solidarity of her death, of the poor protections for medical workers in warzones, and of the occupation of Israel.
picture from https://www.workers.org/2018/06/16/philadelphia-protesters-honor-nurse-slain-in-gaza/
Others took to social media to raise awareness of her story and the devastation of her death:
I need you to SAY her name. I need you to REMEMBER her name. This is Razan Alnajjar, a 21 year old nurse that was shot in the chest and killed by an Israeli sniper as she treated wounded protesters in Gaza today. She was one of the first female medical volunteers to treat the protesters weekly. According to her colleagues, she previously fainted twice due to gas inhalatio and on April 13th she broke her wrist after falling while running to attend to a wounded protester. This was her tenth protest serving as a field nurse. She was interviewed by the @nytimes last month and they asked her why she did this. To which she responded, “Our job is to save lives and evacuate people. We don’t do it for money, we do it for God. We don’t want to get paid or be employed”. _ . Targeting medics is a war crime under the Geneva convention. We can’t ignore the genocide. We can’t sleep on oppression. We wont live silently. This is genocide. This is systemic oppression. _ . You have returned to God in the best of months, in the most valiant of ways. May you be honored. May your family be honored and may you attain the highest level of paradise. Al- Fatiha. . . إنا لله وإنا إليه راجعون
Image source: Instagram @wali_khann
Many members of the online community have immortalized this brave humanitarian, creating cartoons, images, poems, and songs about her story, her passion, and the message she left behind. Some have named her the “Princess of Return,” in regard to the “Great March Return” protests in which she was volunteering.
Image source: Instagram @daysofpalestine
Although the protests continue, Razan’s memory will likely live on. Her mother and her sister, inspired by Razan’s passion to serve her community, have become volunteer health workers, providing medical assistance to victims of violent acts at the border of the Gaza Strip.
"I felt that my heart stopped and I said, 'My daughter Razan died.'"— AJ+ (@ajplus) June 14, 2018
This Palestinian woman became a paramedic after her daughter was killed by Israeli forces. pic.twitter.com/IvqJlQbpUU
Image source: Twitter @ajplus
“We do this [volunteer work] for the love of our country. It’s humanitarian work. We don’t do it for money, we do it for God. We don’t want to get paid or be employed…[We] have one goal – to save lives and evacuate people. And to send a message to the world: without weapons, we can do anything.” – Razan Al-Najjar